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Impressions of Madagascar

Posted 11/15/2012 12:11 AM by Ian Miller | Comments
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As a paleontologist who studies the evolutionary history of the world's forests, I have always been curious about Madagascar. Its forests are unique with more than 95 percent of its tree species found only on the island. How did these forests evolve to be so different than any other on Earth? Are they geologically young or old? Are they the consequence of successive biological dispersal events or were their ancestors stowaways when Madagascar became an island 88 million years ago? These questions and more have perplexed generations of botanists studying the island's living flora.

Paleontologists are essentially time travelers, and in order to fully understand how the Malagasy forest came to be, it is necessary to explore the plant fossil record from when Madagascar first became an island. Amazingly, this has never been attempted, so I jumped when my colleague Joe Sertich offered a spot on his next expedition to Madagascar. In this day and age, it is rare to become the first person to explore a place and time.

I wondered why no one had ever sought a spectacular fossil plant bed in this area, considering the potential magnitude for scientific discovery. Turns out, it boils down to the logistics, which are a bear in that part of the world! Three and a half days by plane, truck, and boat to the field site, which is more than 100 miles from the nearest paved road, much less any modern amenities. We traveled deep into the Malagasy tropical bush, where new strains of drug-resistant malaria are cropping up-and this is just to get to where the fossil plants might be!

Having headed into the expedition with no expectations, I came out of it with many. We found fossil plants, the very first of their age from Madagascar. Although it felt as if we barely scratched the surface, we found big three-locule fruits and delicate leaves from unknown species of flowering plants, and large strap-like leaves and fleshy branches of unfamiliar conifers. The fossils are in transit, and we are eagerly awaiting their arrival so we can begin studying this heretofore "lost world." These fossils -- plus those from future expeditions, for which planning is already in the works -- will form a new basis for the ongoing inquiry into the evolutionary history of Madagascar's forests. 

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